Using language that respects and includes everyone

Improve communication and support a respectful workplace by using inclusive language. 

Photo of a silhouette of a group business team making high hands over head in a sunset sky

Photo credit: gettyimages.com/sutlafk

Recently I spoke with WorkSafeBC occupational safety officer Caity Klaudt about the power of words and promoting equality. She co-presented an online seminar, Inclusivity through language – starting off right, at the Women in Forestry summit earlier this year. She and her colleagues, Carole Savage and Cindy Fife, talked about how using correct language can help maintain a respectful workplace.

“It is a big deal,” says Caity about the importance of inclusive language. “For some people — especially those who have never faced marginalization for their identities — the importance of inclusive language may seem minor compared to other workplace issues.” She says understanding and using inclusive language helps foster higher employee engagement, better customer service, and increased productivity.

When a person uses “them” as a pronoun

Caity’s very first inspection as a safety officer was at a tree-planting camp. Caity describes how she felt confused after she said she wanted to speak to the supervisor.

“When a worker referred to the supervisor as ‘them,’ I thought they were directing me to a group of people, and I was confused,” Caity says. “I thought ‘No, I don’t want to talk to a group of people. I want to talk to your specific supervisor.’ It took a few minutes for me to realize what they meant by ‘them.’”

The pronouns “them” and “they” are often used by a person who identifies as non-binary or transgender. (See the resource Supporting Transgender and Gender Diverse Employees in the Workplace for more information.)

That work experience prompted Caity to learn more about gender diversity. “I realized that if I’m the newest officer on this team, and I don’t know this, chances are the other officers on this initiative might not know anything about this either.”

Caity and her colleagues put together a presentation for other prevention officers about inclusive language and how it can influence the results of an inspection. Read more about Caity’s work around inclusivity in my post, Breaking the bias on International Women’s Day 2022. In it, she suggests addressing a group as “hey everybody” instead of “hey guys.”

Focus on the person

Here are some more examples of inclusive language:

  • Consider whether it’s relevant to mention someone’s personal characteristics — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. If it isn’t relevant to the discussion, you don’t need to say anything about it.
  • Whenever possible, find out from the person what their preferred identity labels are. Don’t make assumptions based on appearance.
  • When talking about someone with a disability, make sure you focus on the person and not the disability. If possible, find out if they prefer a person-first label (such as “a person who uses a wheelchair”) or identity-first label (such as “paraplegic person”). Don’t use labels that imply restriction, such as “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.”
  • Don’t use binary gender phrases such as “he or she” or “woman or man” since they exclude people who are non-binary.
  • Use adjectives, not nouns, when referring to a person’s characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. For example, say an “Asian person” not “an Asian.”
  • Say “a lesbian woman” rather than “a lesbian.”

Caity says that being mindful of the language you use sets an example for others and contributes to a supportive work environment.

Thank you to Caity for telling me her story and for her work to promote respect for all people.

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